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Can any book be more quintessentially English than The Wind in the Willows? I blame it for my early stages of Anglophilia, but I’ve only very recently realize it was originally a book. I knew it first through the Thames Productions adaptation.

I have fond memories of not only the show, but also, strangely, of Thames’ intro. When it came up you knew you were in for a treat, and although I know it was also the intro to other shows, in my memory it’s forever attached to The Wind in the Willows.


Ah to be a kid in the 80s in Portugal! I’ve no idea why, but on top of the ones dubbed in Portuguese, we got a huge mix of cartoons dubbed in other languages (originals were usually Japanese) and then subtitled in Portuguese. I can still sing parts of the generic of Alice im Wunderland and Ferdy the Ant in German, Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or in French, Captain Planet (Were the Planeteersyou can be one to!) in English and Boes Boes in Dutch. Others were left in their original language and only subititled, like the soccer cartoon Tsubasa (Japanese – do you remember the Japan vs. Brasil game? A classic!) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Russian).

But I digress. The Wind in the Willows was very different from I was expecting. The biggest surprise was that Grahame alternates the adventures of Toad, Mr. Badger, Ratty and Mole with slower chapters that, although still involving the characters, are more lyrical and focused on things like love of home, friendship and the wonder of small things. In theory, these changes in mood could become contrived, but Grahame does it so naturally that you can’t help feeling that all works wonderfully.

It was a great and beautiful discovery, these thoughtful and happy sections. More nostalgia-happy than puppy-happy, and some parts got me all teary.

My favorite moment was when Mole, who had lived with Ratty a long time and was having too much fun to notice time fly, noticed a familiar smell while walking in the forest. The smell of his long-forgotten home.

Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

Also loved the descriptions of food, in particular of Mr. Badger’s winter storage. Could his home be a better safe haven, especially after you were lost in a cold, unknown and dark forest? Grahame’s descriptions of domestic bliss can only compete with those by Mrs. Gaskell.

Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.

I understand the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is the general favorite and I can well understand why. This is the moment when The Wind in the Willows really goes beyond “children’s book” and becomes, simply, a “Classic”. Still, my favorite, the one that really made the book for me, was “Wayfarers All”. It’s about how the Water Rat gets seduced by the nomadic lifestyle of his friend the Sea Rat. It appealed to my wanderlust streak and rang true in many moments. It starts:

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why.

I read this in a tattered second-hand copy but want to get a beautifully illustrated edition for my collection, to read to any future children.

I’ll leave you with the gang singing The Open Road:

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Other thoughts: Just Books, The Literate Mother, somewhere i have never travelled, Rebecca Reads, Books ‘N Border Collies,  A library is the hospital of the mind, Books Under Skin, Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner (yours?)

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Last year Sue from Whispering Gums and I exchanged some comments on each other blogs about our Austen-dedicated bookcases. Shortly after, Sue sent me (all the way from Australia!) “Jane Austen: Antipodean Views”, edited by Susannah Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and Anne Harbers.

It is the Antipodean counterpart of a 2000 book called Jane Austen: A Celebration, a collection of opinions about Jane Austen from famous Britons. Fullerton and Harbers were curious about the impact (if any) of Austen on a part of the world as far away as it’s physically possible from where she lived and wrote. They sent letters “in the hundreds” to Australians and New Zealanders from all walks of live asking

(…) for a personal response to Jane Austen. We wanted to know if the letters’ recipients could remember a first reading of a Jane Austen novel, if they re-read their books, if they were forced to read their books at school when they would rather be playing sports. We asked if their first reaction to Jane Austen hand changed over time, if the film versions of her books had been enjoyed or disliked and if Jane Austen aroused feelings of pleasure, warmth, indifference or loathing.

The result is a very fun and poignant book. Its biggest assert is the variety that the editors looked for, including several cartoons especially made for the occasion.

Some responses were four pages old, others a single sentence, some written by Professors of Literature, others by cartoonists, Archbishops, librarians, psychologists, race-horse breeders, Prime Ministers.

Some are serious, some are funny, some are emotional. I laughed out loud and even got a bit teary. All together they make a wonderful celebration of Austen and the way she connects so many people around the world. I couldn’t I really fell the “Antipodean” part, though. Apart from a reference here and there to a specific place, these letters could have been written in England, Canada or America.

Can someone out there please compile a similar thing for non-English-speaking countries, where Austen is not compulsory reading in school? I don’t find the fact that an Australian high-school student reads and loves Austen that special, but why would a Mongolian, Yemenite or Croat? How cool would such a book be?

Here are some great quotes:

(My favorite of all letters was by) John Marsden, writer of teenage fiction:

I’ve deliberately refrained from reading Persuasion so that I would never get to the point where I had no more Jane Austens to read. When the doctor, with grave countenance, gives me the news that I have only three months, the grief will be mitigated by delight that at last I am allowed to read Persuasion. In the meantime, I’m avoiding crossing roads when busses are in sight.

Murray Ball, cartoonist, author:

Anyone able to have her chaste, fully clothed, never so much as “felt up” heroine discussed seriously by a first Fifteen changing room of a boys high-school cannot be considered to be anything less than a genius.

Dr Gideon Maxwell Polya, reader and Associate Professor in Biochemistry, author of Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History:

Jane Austen’s most profound message for me is that no matter who, where or what we are, we are empowered by the sensible expression of our thoughts.

Professor Elizabeth Jolley, Writer, Chair of Creative Writing:

I find in old age, I have forgotten the novels, in particular the magic of being lifted into other lives and background. Re-reading is one of the Best Things of old age. Forgetfulness – it is live having a present.

Harry Smith, ex-coal miner:

I’m sure that any one paragraph can be taken at random and the thoughts behind it would present much food for thought and discussion.

Graeme Base, book author and illustrator:

Jane who?

 

Read for Advent with Austen.

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Other thoughts: Whispering Gums (yours?)

The battle between metropolis and microbe was over, and the metropolis had won.

If you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you. A fascinating read? Yes! But very graphic in its descriptions of the foulness of Victorian London and the effects of cholera in the human body – in a cool way.

The Ghost Map confirmed that I’m a fan of “microhistories”, those books that analyze society and science through the history of one particular thing, like the HeLa cells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, honeybees in The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us or cancer in The Emperor of All Maladies. Goodreads has a great list, if you’re interested. Do you have any recommendations?

In 1854 London was hit by a massive outbreak of cholera and a young doctor named John Snow (winter is coming!) decides to study it. So how does one go about tracking microscopic bacteria without the necessary tools? Dr Snow did it by using a fertile imagination supported by a good dose of disciplined observation. It also helped that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – literally.

Dr Snow’s major theory was that cholera was a waterborne disease, and not spread through the air, as it was widely believed at the time. Together with Reverend Henry Whitehead, a man with his finger on the pulse of London’s poorest neighborhoods, Dr Snow starts interviewing the people in the most infected areas and tracing the disease’s timeline. He starts noticing patterns, like the woman who got ill on the other side of town because she had a preference for the water of her old neighborhood. Or the workhouse right in the center of the epidemic that wasn’t affected because they had their own well.

He also noticed that the epidemic had an epicenter: the now (in)famous Broad Street pump, that was contaminated when an early cholera victim’s septic tank was leaking into its water supply. What was only a theory, became a conclusion after Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead decided to map the victims and came up with the “Ghost Map”, that would eventually revolutionize not only epidemiology, but also information design (by the way, have you seen the amazing Information is Beautiful site?).

(Dr. Snow’s map – source)

Parallel to the story of the cholera epidemic and both men’s struggle to contain it, Johnson also tackles other related issues, always in an interesting, fresh way: public health, scientific history, urban civic engineering, bio-terrorism and the future of the big metropolis.

Of these, there were two in particular that caught my attention: 1) it’s not often you see someone advocating that the best thing for humanity is to be more concentrated. Johnson makes valid points in favor of the mega-cities that seem unavoidable in our future, and 2) Johnson cleverly uses this epidemic to make a point about the dangers of dogmas in science. It makes me wonder about the grave mistakes we’re committing now. Scientific knowledge has advanced since Victorian London, but not human nature:

No one died of stench in Victorian London. But tens of thousands died because the fear of stench blinded them to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse (…) practically the entire medical and political establishment fell into the same deadly error: everyone from Florence Nightingale to the pioneering reformer Edwin Chadwick to the editors of The Lancet to Queen Victoria herself.

The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?

(Broad Street Pump, in front of John Snow pub – source)

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Other thoughts: The Little Reader, A Book a Week, One Minute Book ReviewsSophisticated Dorkiness, A Book LoverWorthwhile Books, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, Maggie Reads, she treads softly, Jenny’s Books,  Ready when you are, C.B., Books and Many More Books, What Kate’s ReadingRhapsody in Books, endomental (yours?)

The only reason why I didn’t give this book a 5 out of 5 was because the book-snob in me kicked in and thought it would be too much to place it up there with Austen and Garcia Marquez. That being said, it was an utterly rewarding read: an entrancing, fast-paced view of the art world, with a good dose of investigative history and terrific storytelling.

You might recognize Philip Mould is part of the team of experts in Antiques Roadshow, where he evaluates paintings. He also started his own antiques business and soon realized that the best way to get profit and satisfy his own taste for adventure was to go after hidden masterpieces. Some risks paid off, others were disastrous, but this book focuses of six success stories – six fabulous paintings and how their true identity was uncovered.

My favorite story was about a Rembrandt self-portrait, so over-painted to reflect the fashion of different owners and centuries, that it became labelled as “by a follower of the artist”. Mould tells us of the painting’s adventures until it’s finally recognized as an original. In between he describes the birth of the Rembrandt Research Project, a unique initiative created by the Dutch Government, to ensure the protection of one of the country’s biggest assets from forgery and misattributions. The RRP is currently Chaired by Ernst van de Wetering, a fascinating man who Mould unapologetically admires:

In an old house if Amsterdam lives a professor who wields daunting power in the highest echelons of the art world. His name is Ernst van de Wetering, and he has come to be an arbiter of life and death for the works of Rembrandt.

Some of Mould’s stories are set outside the UK. He went to the United States to gather information about a Norman Rockwell painting that for four years lay hidden behind a false wall, while a forgery held a place of honor in the Norman Rockwell Museum. I also found myself hanging at the edge of my seat during his trip to the Bahamas to uncover the past of a Homer watercolor found in a dumpster in Ireland.

Each story becomes addictive and compelling because Mould tells is from a human perspective, adding interesting historic and personal insights. It also helps that the book has images of the paintings he’s describing. I lost count of the times I went back to them as I read.

If you’re interested in art or history, apart from this book I’d also recommend the BBC Series Fake or Fortune, presented by Philip Mould, the man himself. One of the episodes is about the Homer watercolor.

 

Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, The Cineaste’s Bookshelf (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 3: Art business/Restoration

Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is the day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and I decided to do it by reading Patricia Fara’s wonderful Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment.

At the core of the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) is the belief that only through the power of reason could man advance knowledge. Its defenders promoted the use of intelligence and logic on a wider scale and generally challenged any religious or political established beliefs.

This had a huge impact on science: alchemy and astrology were discredited and experimentation (empiricism), intellectual interchange and scientific rigor became the new norm. It was also an Age that embrassed the legend of the hero-scientist, who single-handed propelled science one step forward (e.g. Newton, Descartes, Liebniz). In her introduction to Pandora’s Breeches, Patricia Fara starts by busting this myth, both male and female:

Instead of focusing exclusively on great minds and great ideas, historians are now more interested in examining how science has entered everyday life. (…) In romanticized versions of the past, science progresses in uneven leaps as solitary geniuses make momentous discoveries in their disinterested search for truth. (…) When historians focus on famous individuals, they leave out many vital people who made science central to everyday life.

In seeing the history of science in this perspective, Fara defends that although women may have been excluded from the traditional historical record, it doesn’t mean they were excluded from scientific activity during that period. In this group of unsung people, Fara also includes the technicians and administrators who made the work of the “super-heros of the modern age” or “scholarly gladiators” possible from behind the curtain. If scientific development is seen as a communal effort, then women’s role becomes much more evident, both in the past and in the present. Fara’s book is her contribution to the rewriting of scientific history to include these forgotten contributors.

The nine women that Fara uses as examples are an extraordinary bunch. Not only for their fascinating lives, but they’re so different that together they destroy all conventional images of the woman scientist. Some of Fara’s women could be considered proto-feminists, but others defended that women should remain in the domestic realm; some made actual scientific discoveries, while others translated the works of their male relatives, wrote books that brought science to the masses or were patrons of scientists; some received awards and public recognition, others all but fell into oblivion; some were happily married mothers, others died single by choice; some where humble and masochistic, others vain and hot-headed.

Gender equality should not imply yet another series of female stereotypes, like the widely popular tom-boy-who-shuns-all-things-girly – what Jodie called “excepto-girls”. Instead, history (and all other narratives) should reflect the real variety of women out there:

In well-intentioned pastiches of the past, scientific women emerge as cardboard cutouts – the selfless helpmate, the source of inspiration, the dedicated assistant who sacrifices everything for the sake of her man and the cause of science. On the other hand, over-compensation – glorifying women as lone pioneers, as unrecognized geniuses – also has its drawbacks.

Although Pandora’s Breeches doesn’t ignore the injustice and discrimination these women faced, what really made me love this book was that it doesn’t pity them either. Fara sets out to unearth the untold stories of female participation in scientific developments but she makes sure we understand their true and real importance by placing them in context.

If only they had been man, one cans almost hear their biographers sigh, then their true brilliancy would have been recognized. Prominent examples include Aspasia of Miletus, Hypatia of Alexandria and Hildegard of Bingen. All exceptional women, without doubt, but it is misleading to celebrate them as suppressed scientists. Modern science bears little resemblance to intellectual pursuits of ancient Greece, fifth-century Egypt or Benedictine monasteries. Those women certainly deserve to be honored, but only within the framework of their contemporaries. There is no point in distorting women’s importance by exaggerating their activities.

Without Émilie du Châtelet (my favorite of the Pandora’s Breeches women*) books and translations, Newton’s theories wouldn’t have been so widely accepted. Caroline Herschel was the devoted assistant of her brother William, who discovered Uranus. Jane Marcet‘s Conversations on Chemistry inspired Michael Faraday’s pioneering career and he remembered her throughout his life as his first teacher. These are different contributions that shouldn’t forgotten, underestimated or seen as less important than other male achievements. They just happened not to be the subject of historians’ attention.

Fara’s final chapter on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein will be especially interesting to book-lovers. She points out the conflicts in Shelley’s own mind about the place of women in the world and more importantly, the role of science itself. Her doubts continue to resonate today, when we’re still debating about “Frankenfood” and the dangers of opening Science’s Pandora’s Box.

My only uneasiness about the book was the structure. In each chapter Fara pairs a woman with a famous man and then demonstrates how the first influenced the work of the second.  If it was me (I hate this expression), I’d make an introduction underlining that indeed several male scientists were greatly impacted by the women in their lives, but then talk about these women by themselves.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science, the Enlightenment period, women’s studies or just curious about the lives of the men and women Fara use as examples, Pandora’s Breeches will have something to offer you. It aims high – “Rather than creating new female heroines, it has undermined conventional views of the past by attacking the very concept of heroism in science” – but I was both immediately attracted and sold to the idea.

***

*
She was Voltaire’s lover. Here’s what he wrote to a mutual friend when Émilie gave birth to her daughter:

“Mme du Châtelet informs you that this night, being at her desk working on Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in an instant. She was laid on a quarto book of geometry.”

Is it possible to wholeheartedly love a book that often boggles your mind? I’ve actually come to realize that it’s the books that make me feel out of my depth that often become my favorites.

I remember that after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude I went on a scholarly discovery of Colombian history and that The Mist of Avalon brought me as close to religion as my atheist self ever was. Most importantly, these books led me to other books, which led me to other intensive searches.

The meatier the book, the more a Companion enhances the reading experience and as a history-buff I’ve found them especially useful with historical fiction. I’ve realized that if my 21st century brain understands all dialogues and references then I’m either being spoon-fed or the book is far from realistic.

I’m also a Collector, so I get a big kick out of owning stuff connected to literary favorites. (I also do the same for certain movies and series, but that’s a whole different post…)

Do you also use book Companions?

Here are some of the best:

The Dorothy Dunnett Companion I and II by Elspeth Morrison

These books are companions to Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (16th century) and The House of Niccolò (15th century) series, some of the most well researched novels I’ve ever read. Her fictional characters interact with actual historical figures and they both use literary quotes in different languages (Lymond in particular is a poetry-lover, a polyglot and a show-off). Dunnett also has no qualms about realistically portraying the complex geopolitics of the time.

The Companions (which Dunnett helped compile) provide background information on historical figures and events, explain the many obscure literary references, and offer translations, maps and genealogical trees. They’re the perfect guide to help readers navigate through the  tortuous world of Renaissance life and politics.

Typical entries :

Entre cuir et chair : LIONS, 6: ‘Secretly’, or, literally, ‘between skin and flesh’. Said here, rather eerily, of knowledge privily stored.

Kiss any arm you cannot break: UNICORN, 39 : A Saying which continues: ‘And pray God to break it’.

Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World by Richard O’Neill

Here’s a normal dialogue in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels:

‘What luck?’ asked Jack.

‘Well, sir,’ said Killick, ‘Joe Plaice says he would venture upon a lobscouse, and Jemmy Ducks believes he could manage a goose-pie.’

‘What about pudding? Did you ask Mrs Lamb about pudding? About her frumenty?’

‘Which she is belching so and throwing up you can hardly hear yourself speak,’ said Killick, laughing merrily. ‘And has been ever since we left Gib. Shall I ask the gunner’s wife?’

‘No, no,’ said Jack. No one the shape of the gunner’s wife could make frumenty, or spotted dog, or syllabub, and he did not wish to have anything to do with her.

You see the challenge? And it’s not even related to naval history, so imagine when he goes on about the different types of sails…

The wonderful things about both these two books in particular is that they’re much more than a glossary of obscure 18th century terms. Among other juicy information, they explain the flora and fauna of Maturin’s studies, map the places mentioned (some of which changed names meanwhile), show pictures of medical instruments and diagrams of the ship’s organization.

For good measure I also have Musical Evenings With the Captain: Music from the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian. It’s a great experience to actually be able to listen to specific songs when O’Brian mentions then in the books.


Notes on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
free site

I know there’s actually a Companion book, but the online version has been good to me so far.

These graphic novels are every fan of Victorian literature’s wet dream. They are brimming with references, some of them easy to spot, but others from books that are all but forgotten. I also found the site really useful in pointing out small details that I might have otherwise ignored:

Page 1. Panel 1. A further indication of how far Mina Murray has fallen from the Victorian ideal of “proper” womanhood is seen here: she’s smoking.

The site is a communal pool of knowledge and is constantly being updated. Contributors often put forward theories that are more or less farfetched, but always interesting:

Page 16. Panel 4. This is the second time in this issue that Nemo has raised the idea of an aerial bombardment of Britain. There are many precedents in the popular fiction of the day for such a thing; perhaps Moore is indicating that Nemo has encountered a “lethal airship”?

Certain details in the novels are so vague that they give wing to multiple interpretations:

Page 18. Panel 2. I’m quite certain that the waif in the nightgown is meant to be someone, though I don’t know who. Paul Crowley suggests that she’s simply meant to refer to the plight of poor children in Victorian England, poverty having driven her to prostitution. Dave McKenna suggests that the waif might be Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll, while Emilio Martin sees Dr. Gull, the murderer in Moore’s From Hell.


Jane Austen’s England and Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author, both by Maggie Lane

Jane Austen in Style by Susan Watkins

These are not officially “Companions”, but in their different way each has helped me better understand Austen’s world and writing.

Watkins’ book is more specific than the other two, as she focused on lifestyle. There are details about the furnishings, fashions, china and glass of the period that can still be admired today. Lane’s are wider scoped and cover the author’s life, family and her time.

If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, this book might be a good distraction while you wait for the movie.

It’s a compilation of 13 essays by fantasy authors on the trilogy’s themes. It you’ve read the canon, you know there’s a lot of juicy stuff to discuss, from the light-hearted (go team Gale!), to the serious (torture, oppression), from the philosophical (aren’t we as thrilled to watch the Games as the people in the Capitol?), to the practical (what would you do when confronted with a wolf mutt?).

These essays made me realize once more the power YA books can have in fostering civil rights, and the potential of this trilogy in particular to become the 1984 of its young generation. It’s not as “literary” or high-brow, but in the hands of a creative teacher it can have a major impact, especially in discussing democracy, freedom of expression, propaganda and human nature. The essays also showed me that, under the right sort of light, The Hunger Games could be considered subversive. Are they already in the Banned Books List? It shouldn’t take long…

These three essays in particular caught my attention.

The first was Someone To Watch Over Me, by Lili Wilkinson. She writes about surveillance as a means of social control and divides her essay into the three participants of this system: the Watched, the Watchers and the Engineers. Each of these three groups holds some power, but what happens when one group gets too much control? She discusses Katniss’ transition from being controlled by the Capitol’s Game Engineers to the rebels “Watchers-turned-Engineers”, and touches a point I thought of often while reading the books: we, the watchers of reality TV and “realistic” news are just as voyeurs as the citizens of Capitol:

Sure, nobody dies on our reality TV shows, But we still watch people suffer. We watch them endure physical and mental challenges on Survivor, subject them to isolation in Big Brother, tell them their dreams will never come true ion Idol, and break their hearts on The Bachelorette. Reality TV is all about putting people in difficult situations and watching how they react. Some people come our stranger, richer, and healthier, facing a lifetime of success. Others are voted off the island early on, their failure broadcast all over the world. How many steps are there, between our own TV shows and the Hunger Games?

How many indeed! *shudder*

At the start of her essay The Politics of Mockingjay, political columnist Sarah Littman mentions an interview where Collins said she drew her inspiration for The Hunger Games when she was zapping one night between the Iraq war coverage and “reality” TV. Littman then (bravely) goes on to compare certain elements of The Hunger Games to the Bush administration. In particular she talks about people turning a blind eye to everything a government does because of propaganda or crisis-mode (e.g. Patriot Act after 9/11):

I consider Mockinjay a brilliant book of our time. Not only does it raise the difficult, eternal question of war and humanity, grief and revenge, but one hopes it will encourage all of us to become more politically aware and active, and not to ever allow ourselves to risk the erosion of our democracy and civil liberties for panem et circenses.

Another one my favorite essays is about the power of fashion: Crime of Fashion – written by Terri Clark. I’m a sucker for a good makeover story, but there is more at stake in the Hunger Games’ fashion than looking fierce. Clothes make a statement in this world, and such a strong one that Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, suffers the consequences. Cinna was actually one of my favorite characters in the trilogy and I’d love to know more about him. His role in bringing down the Capitol is often ignored, but Clark captured it well:

All of the Capitol stylists are well practiced at polishing and presenting their contestants, but Cinna takes this craft to a new level. Not only is he genius at creating provocative, memorable costumes, he utilizes his fashion artistry as a political platform that subtly plays on his audience’s sensibilities.

With the help of examples from our world, from J-Lo to Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin, Clark goes on to discuss the power of fashion and how it helps shape public image. Très intéressant!

Overall, there’s much food for thought in this collection and I highly recommend it to all fans. I think teachers and parents in particular might take a lot from it.

A big thank you to the kind people over at BenBella Books for sending me a copy.

***

Other thoughts: Reading Through Life (yours?)

The extraordinary thing about this book is that although the theories Malcolm Gladwell puts forward aren’t ground-breaking, he still manages to make them completely fresh. I also used some of his examples to great success in social gatherings: they’re perfect to start interesting debates among friends and crack the ice among strangers.

What Ouliers is out to prove is that success is not something you’re born with (or not), but the result of accumulative advantage. He sets out to bust the myth of the “self-made man” by arguing that they

are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

Outliers – people who don’t “fit into our normal understanding of achievement” – are instead beneficiaries of specialization, collaboration, time, place, and culture.

All of Gladwell’s argumentation is based on examples and studies, which he analysis in detail and under a different light. This may be both his weakness and advantage: on one hand everyone knows that statistics can be used to prove just about anything, on the other he chooses such interesting and compelling case-studies that I voluntarily put away my skeptical side (thou shall not take one example and apply the conclusions to the whole!).

The book is divided in two parts, one focused on the relation between opportunity and timing – being the right person at the right time – and the other about cultural legacies. So, for your benefit and after my own social experiments I give you:

The best Outliers examples for parties and other social occasions, guaranteed to start interesting discussions

Part 1 – Timing

Gladwell shows that most of the players in the two best junior hockey teams in Canada are born in the early parts of the year. This happens because young hockey players in Canada are grouped by the year they’re born, and at trials kids born in January (older and more developed) will compete with kids born in December. These bigger kids will then get scouted to play for better teams with better coaches, thus giving them an advantage that could influence their future careers.

This can also be applied to children who have to start school sooner because they’re born at the end of the year. A child born in December will be in the same class with others born in January. 11 months at such a young age is a considerable gap and it can become a disadvantage if teachers and schools start making any kind of selection too early.

Part 2 – Cultural Legacies

How did Korean culture influence the country’s former tragic airline safety record? This was the eeriest case-study and the one that grabbed me the most. Gladwell uses several transcripts from the cockpit’s conversations, especially from the fated Flight 801. Until recently, Korean pilots’ crash record was above average and the cause was traced back to the their high deference to authority: it was almost impossible for Korean co-pilots to question the captain or any figure of authority. This also applied to aggressive control-tower operators, especially if the conversation was in English. For an even more fascinating debate, gather a few friends from different nationalities and introduce them to the “Power Distance Index”.

There was one example in particular that impressed me on a personal level. I already mentioned here that I’m don’t think social mobility exists (or at least not in the scale we’re led to believe), so I appreciated Gladwell’s courage in tackling this. What’s preventing social mobility in countries where access to education – the best social leveler – should be universal?Extra points for Gladwell for not going into the “cost of education” debate, but focusing instead on the role of the family.

He mentioned a study where scientists measured children’s knowledge twice a year: at the end of school year and right at the beginning. What they found was that while the difference between poor and rich kids was small at the school year’s end, the difference after the summer holidays was much noticeable. The study put forward this explanation: while rich parents were much more hands-on during the holidays and encouraged reading, board games and summer camps, poorer families treated the summer as the children’s time and gave them more independence.

Nowadays we’re so used to criticizing the school system for everything that findings like these should be more widely known, even if they’re not exactly politically correct. I grew up in a low middle-class family in an inner-city neighborhood and noticed that at each stage of my life (high-school, uni, traineeship abroad, getting a job, moving abroad again), I met less and less people with a similar background. I actually don’t know any Portuguese in Brussels who at any given time didn’t attend a private school. Or who, like me, was the first in his/her family to have a degree. What I did have was a mother who took me to a museum each Sunday morning (free entrance).

So, Outliers isn’t Pulitzer-material and I’m sure one could easily put some holes in Gladwell’s assumptions, but he did make me see certain things in a new light, and I’m always grateful when that happens.

What next, Tipping Point or Blink?

***

Other thoughts: Stella Matutina, The Literate Man (yours?)

(The Brontës & Axel the Cat, our temporary guest. Photo by Andre)

As I’ve mentioned in the first part, I don’t usually write multiple posts about a single book outside read-alongs. However, there’s just too much to explore in Juliet Barker’s The Brontës. It’s an amazing portrait of the family, and has deservingly become known as the biography for all of them. It’s the perfect choice for a brave bookclub like mine, who agreed to tackle this 900+ page mammoth.

The second half of the book starts right after Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels and begins her lessons with Monsieur Heger. Strangely enough, it’s not Charlotte’s falling desperately in love that’s the most interesting part of this period, but understanding the influence he had on her writing. He gave her focus and drive, and he encouraged her to write about what she knew. Charlotte’s journey from the enchanted world of Gondal to the almost autobiographical Jane Eyre is remarkably similar to the one made by two fictional characters with similar literary aspirations: Little Women’s Jo and Anne of Green Gables.

Emily on the other hand, didn’t let go of her juvenilia and seemed immune to Heger’s teachings:

Having spent most of her life at home, Emily had always been the one most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world. There was no perceivable break between her Gondal writing and her novel; indeed it seems likely that she went straight from writing her long Gondal poem “The Prisoner”, to Wuthering Heights.

It’s also in this second half of the book that we get to see that the beginnings of some of the most famous novels in the English language. Fascinating stuff!

Something I didn’t know: Emily might have written a second book. Barker has very good arguments to support this as well as the theory that it was destroyed by Charlotte, to prevent another “coarse” novel to be published and further harm her sister’s reputation. As is normal with Brontë-related non-fiction, Charlotte takes center stage due to the amount material biographers have to work with. After the portrait of sainthood painted by Mrs. Gaskell in her version, it’s truly illuminating to finally see Charlotte in 3D, with all her weaknesses and inconsistencies. I’m not sure we would get along if we ever met, I’m afraid. I’m too outraged at the way she handled her sisters’ (especially Anne’s) work after their deaths. Her defense of their themes and writing style (they dared to actually using the word “damn”, instead of “d–“!) wasn’t very brave or true to their nature. She presented them as secluded virgins with an overwrought imagination who didn’t know what they were doing instead of, for instance, argumentation in favor of Anne’s moral and religious motivations for writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (can you tell I’m an Anne fan?). I also was shocked at how Charlotte heavily re-wrote  edited their poems, sometimes completely changing the original meaning.

I know Charlotte is considered ground-breaking in her writing, especially in Jane Eyre, but after reading most of the Brontë novels (only missing The Professor and Shirley), she strikes me as the most conventional of the three, the one who risked less. Even on the issue of governesses, Agnes Grey was much stronger in its realism and brutality.

This [women’s rights to work] was a subject to which Charlotte would return again and again, it being one of obvious  relevance to her own situation. One cannot  escape the conclusion that her intellectual engagement with the subject arose purely and simply as a  result of her own unhappiness. if she had been financially independent, “the condition of women”, would not have mattered to her.

But to give her credit, she did show great spirit at time, like her head-to-head with the great William Makepeace Thackeray, who she idolized but never the less receive a piece of her mind when he deserved it.

Barker’s description of the dramatic moments of the family’s deaths were the first time a non-fiction book made me cry. Anne’s death in particular was hard to read because we not only have Charlotte’s description, but also that of Ellen Nussey, an intimate family friend.

It was Ellen, together with Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte’s friend and publisher George Smith, that made my blood boil in the book’s last chapters. Barker does a wonderful job of piecing together the creation of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which became the beginning of what Lucasta Miller described as “the Brontë myth”. The three of them did Charlotte a great injustice, not only with the border-line-illegal ways used to gather materials, but especially in the portrayal her family, which would be the accepted version for centuries to come: “poor Charlotte”; not-of-this-world Emily; Branwell, the black-sheep; Patrick, the distant and harsh father; Arthur the domineering husband.

Also, next time someone argues that the media’s exploitation of the personal life of celebrities is a modern phenomenon, I’ll have to gently disagree, after reading about what happened after Charlotte’s death.

Barker has clearly set out to de-bunk most of the Brontë myths and has done a great job of it. It’s almost an historical moment to see their true characters finally starting to surface, after all this time.

I’ve never done more than one post about a single book (except read-alongs), but I’ll open an exception for this one. It’s not just because it’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever picked up, but I’m half-way through it and it’s fascinating enough to make me want to put some thoughts down. This is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the Brontës and don’t be intimidated by its size: it’s one of those books that just floooows.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s works. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

It was especially enlightening to read this after Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. While Gaskell’s clear agenda was to give a sympathetic view of Charlotte and ease the shock the family’s books generated at the time, she did it by making certain sacrifices. Patrick and Branwell for instance, were not portrayed in the best of lights and it was clear Gaskell bent the truth to carry this argument.

The Life is responsible for many Brontë legends, namely “poor Charlotte” (the martyr daughter and saintly sister) and Emily as the romantic and wild free spirit. With The Brontës, Barker set out to defy these and other dogmas by diligently re-visiting all direct and indirect sources and re-accessing every established assumption.

My perception of Charlotte in particular changed from the “picture of perfection” image I had of her. I was spellbound by her struggle between her duty towards her family (a job she didn’t like and was bad) and the ever-present temptation of her imaginary worlds.

I discussed this book with other Brontë fans and some thought Barker was sometimes too set on thoroughness at the expensed of compelling story telling (the opposite of Mrs. Gaskell?). I didn’t feel that way, even though I admit to a few skims here and there. Baker’s very keen on describing several juvenilia characters and after a while it became too difficult to keep up with who killed, (de)crowned or married whom. Certain parts on the religious and political activism that took so much of Patrick’s time could also have used a little trimming, but the fact remains these were central events in the family’s lives.

Other myths Barker busted included the image of Haworth as an isolate, stagnated village, Branwell being an alcoholic from a very early age and Patrick as a severe and distant father. And we’re only talking about the first half of the book!

There was one debunking where I felt Barker went too far. The Brontë’s two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – died of TB contracted in the boarding school Charlotte also attended. Charlotte was so traumatized by her time there as seen in Jane Eyre’s first chapters. Barker puts these experiences into perspective: Roe Head was bad, but not that bad compared to other schools and their mortality rates, malnutrition and aggressive daily routines were better than average. Somehow, perspective just doesn’t stick as a compelling argument in these cases. Better unhuman conditions are still unhuman conditions. The nightmare at Roe Head is one Brontë legend I can live with.

I’m just at the point in their lives where Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels. The voyeur in me is looking forward to Charlotte’s relationship with Mr. Heger, Branwell’s downfall and future literary disappointments 🙂

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